Smith: Internet law: Right to be forgotten

Smith: Internet law: Right to be forgotten

May 19th, 2014 by By Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith

Robin Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A European court ruling regarding public information has implications for the United States.

The decision promises to impact more than 500 million Europeans and will bring noticeable change to search engines run by Google, Yahoo and others -- along with sites such as Facebook.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in favor of "a Spanish man who objected to the fact that Google searches on his name threw up links to a 1998 newspaper article about the repossession of his home," according to a Reuters report.

The reach of this court spans all 28 European Union member nations. The Court of Justice is comprised of one justice per E.U. member and nine advocates general.

The ruling is a clear victory for privacy advocates seeking the "right to be forgotten" through the removal of digital content at the request of the citizen referenced in cyberspace. The European court decision forces Google, in this instance, to remove data that "are inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed."

This tension between free speech and open records in matters of personal privacy in the digital realm had earlier surfaced through a European Parliament move in 2012 that will allow "the right to erasure" for private citizens who are not public figures.

"Data belongs to the individual, not to the company," E.U. Commissioner Viviane Reding said. "Unless there is a good reason to retain this data, an individual should be empowered -- by law -- to request erasure of this data."

Obviously, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and other Internet entities are fighting the approval of this "erasure" protection due to added costs.

The move toward more personal privacy is not just happening in Europe.

California has passed a state law due for implementation in 2015 that mandates removal of postings by a child upon request. Legal challenges, however, are expected based on the claim that once posted publicly, the data is no longer owned personally.

Google already has a process through which one may request removal of copyrighted data and a separate page that allows a request for other content removal.

Yet, current U.S. laws under the Telecommunications Act hold Internet companies under immunity for certain content.

The ruling, however, by the Court of Justice of the European Union offers no appeal. The decision is final. With that decision, the Internet in Europe will offer less data than the cyber network available in the United States.

Make no mistake, the recent National Security Agency (NSA) activities shown to access private emails, phone calls and personal data of individuals who are not deemed a threat to "national security," have reached beyond the geographic boundaries of the United States.

With Google, Verizon and Facebook, among others, having been cited as providers of data to the NSA for its use in monitoring, court decisions supporting the right to erasure become more legitimate.

This makes for an interesting discussion. Who owns the Internet? If I use "free" WiFi provided by a coffee shop, does my content become the property of the coffee shop?

Lots of constitutional discussion and business innovations are guaranteed to flow from this debate. Engage.

Robin Smith served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, 2007 to 2009.